With Windows 8 and its touch-optimised interface finally upon us, computer makers are busy showing off their latest laptops with touchscreen capabilities -- and what a weird bunch they are.
Dell has stood up to be counted among them. Its XPS 12 is a 12-inch laptop with a screen that can flip over, fold down and turn into a tablet.
It comes with a Full HD screen, an Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM. That lot will cost you £1,000 from Dell's online store.
Should I buy the Dell XPS 12?
The Dell XPS 12 looks like a standard laptop, but the screen is able to rotate, then fold flat, turning into a chubby tablet. It does this in order to let you properly experience the touch-optimised Windows 8 software in tablet form, but provide a full-sized keyboard for getting on with proper work.
It might seem a pretty bizarre way of doing things, but it works surprisingly well. It's easy to flip over and feels much more sturdy than it looks. If you're keen to experience Windows 8 on a touchscreen, but can't decide between a tablet or laptop, the XPS 12 is a great compromise.
The XPS 12 is running the full-fat version of Windows, allowing you to install all the standard desktop software you would on any Windows machine. Windows 8 is easy to get to grips with, but it's sadly lacking in apps for the moment. If you love playing the latest mobile games, you'd be better suited with an iPad or a Nexus 10, but the XPS 12 gives you access to proper PC games from the likes of Steam.
Physically, it's an attractive and well-built machine. The 12-inch display has a Full HD resolution and looks great, making it a good choice for media addicts. It's easily powerful enough to handle all your everyday tasks and has enough juice to tackle things like photo editing too.
At £1,000, it's pricey, but with its compact size, folding screen, excellent build quality and decent performance, the Dell XPS 12 does a lot to justify it. For the same money, however, you could buy a Microsoft Surface to satisfy your Windows touchscreen cravings and a decent performing normal laptop. If you don't need a convertible machine, you could potentially save yourself a bundle.
Design and build quality
With its traditional clamshell design and physical keyboard, you'd be forgiven for mistaking the XPS 12 for just another laptop. Only once you open the lid and press on the screen do you realise that it flips over to become a touchscreen tablet.
As a laptop it's pretty good looking. Both the lid and the base are clad in rubberised carbon fibre. You'll find machined aluminium around all the edges, making it look and feel like a delightfully premium and expensive piece o kit. It might not have the minimalist elegance that makes Apple's MacBook range so popular, but it's not in any way ugly.
To transform it into tablet mode, simply apply some pressure to the screen and it will clip free of the aluminium frame, rotating on a horizontal axis. It can click back into place facing the other way, so you can close it and swipe around as you would on a normal tablet. You can also stand it up like a tent if you want to sit back and watch some video on it.
The clips are strong enough to hold the screen in place when you're poking at the Windows 8 live tiles, and yet it's easy enough to clip out and rotate. The hinge itself looks like it would be very fragile but it actually feels pretty sturdy, as does the aluminium frame it sits in.
I gave it plenty of abuse in my hands-on test and I was left satisfied that it could take a fair amount of battering throughout its life. It's perhaps not the most elegant solution -- if the hinge isn't open fully then the screen will simply bang against the keyboard when you flip it. There's also a couple of slightly irritating software issues I'll come back to later.
The rest of the machine feels well put together. There's little flex on the lid, wrist rest or keyboard tray and the metal hinge doesn't display any unpleasant bending when you open it. The aluminium edging is thick enough to shake off the odd drop and the carbon fibre base will go some way to protecting the delicate internals when you chuck it on your desk in a bad mood.
At 316mm wide and 216mm deep, it's compact enough to throw into a backpack and with a width of only 19mm at its thickest part, you'll have plenty of room left over for your books. It weighs in at 1.54kg which is pretty hefty for a machine of this size. If you need to travel light then it might not be the best option. The Gigabyte X11 ultrabook might be more for you -- it weighs a mere 975g.
Around the sides you'll find two USB 3.0 ports, a mini display port, a volume rocker, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a slidey little power switch. Sadly, there's no SD card slot, so you'll have to use a USB reader if you want to grab those photos off your camera. A 128GB solid state drive is on board to store all your media.
You also don't get an Ethernet port, so if you need to connect to a high speed wired connection, grab a USB to Ethernet adaptor.
Keyboard and trackpad
Typing with on-screen touch keyboards isn't great for anything more than a couple of sentences. When you want to get on with some serious work, you'll be using the physical keyboard. It sports rounded, isolated keys that seem to have been lifted straight from Dell's other XPS ultrabooks.
That's no bad thing though, as they're very comfortable to type on, even for long periods of time. Dell's made good use of the space, stretching the keys over the entire base. You don't need to squash your hands up to type as though you're reaching for the last Pringle in the tube.
The trackpad is wide and offers a comfortable finger slide, thanks to the rubberised coating. It's responsive too, and has a satisfying click. If you're doing fine work like photo editing then you'll want to use a USB mouse, but it's perfectly good enough for most tasks.
The 12.5-inch screen boasts a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution -- that's Full HD. There are plenty of much bigger laptops around that don't offer that resolution, so it's great to see it on a smaller device like this. It means that fine text and small icons look delightfully sharp and high-resolution images look very crisp.
It's extremely bold too, with deep black levels, which makes the colourful Metro style desktop of Windows 8 stand out and photos and videos look delightful. I popped in some of my photos taken on the Canon EOS 5D MKIII and was very pleased with how they were displayed. Colours were rich and the high resolution made them particularly sharp. As a media screen, it performs very adeptly.
Viewing angles are acceptable, but far from perfect. You don't to stay completely face on with the screen, but once you start to move too far around, you'll quickly notice the colours starting to distort. Vertical viewing angles are better though, which comes in handy when you've propped it on your lap while you lean back in your chair.
Windows 8 software
The XPS 12 is running the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, Windows 8. If you're a die-hard Windows 7 user and you've never laid eyes on Windows 8 before then you're in for a bit of a surprise -- it's a very different landscape.
Gone is the traditional desktop start menu, which has been replaced with a long line of colourful tiles showing live information. It's particularly suited to touch interaction, making use of various gestures to bring up settings and multi-tasking bars.
The best way to use the XPS 12 is to poke and swipe your way around the big tiles of the homescreen, switching to the keyboard when you need to write some emails. If all you're doing is browsing the web or looking through pictures then keeping folded down in 'tablet mode' is fine.
You'll be asked to log in to Windows 8 using a Windows Live email address. You can then connect your email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Skype accounts, which allows you to view all your contacts from every network in one place: the People hub. You're able to contact them using any of the connected channels without having to go in and out of different apps.
Speaking of apps, Windows 8 comes complete with its own app store, similar to that you'd find on an iPad or Android tablet. You can easily search for and install the apps you want without having to use the typical Windows install wizard. Sadly though, the store isn't particularly well stocked just yet.
There are a few gems in there to get you started, but if you're well used to the breadth on offer in iOS or Android stores then you won't be satisfied. Given that Windows 8 will ship as standard on all new PCs however, app developers have a suddenly huge market to aim their products at so expect it to fill up dramatically over the coming weeks and months.
It's running the full-fat version of Windows 8 so you're able to install any normal desktop software. Rather than wait for apps like Spotify to make their way to the store, you can simply install the standard version. These apps won't run on the homescreen though, instead appearing on a simulated classic desktop, making it look like Windows 7.
Windows 8 is pretty simple to get to grips with and it's rather fun to use too. It's not perfect on the XPS 12 though. If you're on the traditional desktop in tablet mode, when you need to input text -- in a URL bar or renaming a file, for example -- the on-screen keyboard doesn't automatically appear as it does when you're in the Metro homescreen. Instead, you have to manually fish it out of the settings bar.
The auto-rotate also seems a bit iffy too. Flipping the screen over should make the display automatically rotate so you can turn it round and watch video. It didn't always work as it should though, requiring me to close it up and tilt it to get it to flip. It's a small bug and one that you might not notice much, but it does suggest that not all issues have been worked out before the XPS 12 went on sale.
Power and performance
Inside the XPS 12 you'll find an Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 1.7GHz along with 4GB of RAM. For a tablet, those would be extremely powerful specs but for a laptop, it's an average lineup at best. Depending on exactly what device you view the XPS 12 as primarily, you'll be either delighted or disappointed.
Either way, I found it to be powerful enough for most things I threw at it. Swiping through the colourful homescreen was zippy and apps and web pages were responsive and loaded quickly. It has plenty of juice to handle essential tasks such as web browsing, social networking, office tasks and high definition video playback. As a tablet, it's extremely potent.
It was able to achieve a score of 7,223 on the Geekbench benchmark test which puts it easily above HP's Envy 6 ultrabook. It also nicely bests Dell's XPS 14 ultrabook too. It didn't quite manage to match the score of Sony's Windows 8 convertible the Vaio Duo 11, which achieved over 8,000 on the same test. It boasts much beefier specifications but does also come with a considerably higher price tag.
More demanding tasks are also handled well. I fired up Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 and loaded in some very high definition images. It was able to cope admirably with applying image-wide changes to brightness and colour balance, as well as applying various visual effects. There was only a marginal delay between moving a slider and seeing the effect take place.
If you hope to tackle high definition video editing using numerous effects at once then this isn't the machine for you. Instead, you should take a gander at Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. It's got enough grunt to handle touching up those embarrassing holiday snaps though.
The Dell XPS 12 might be pretty pricey but its great screen, compact and sturdy design, decent performance and of course the ability to transform into a tablet helps to justify it.
If you can't wait to get your fingers prodding at Windows 8's colourful live tiles and can't decide between a traditional laptop and a tablet, the XPS 12 is definitely worth your consideration.